Under 5:20 was left in the Stevenson Class 4A supersectional and Wheeling's wonder girls were at it again.
The surging Wildcats held a 6-point lead and were trying to get to 2 games under .500, and, incredibly, 2 wins away from a state championship.
But Loyola Academy failed to cooperate with the Hollywood storyline and finally ended one of the most thrilling state runs by a Mid-Suburban League girls basketball team.
"What a heartbreaker but what a run," said Wildcats senior forward Leah Malsom after Ramblers (26-7) escaped with a 43-41 decision over the Wildcats (15-19) and moved on to Illinois State's Redbird Arena for Friday's 8:15 p.m. semifinal against Edwardsville (33-1).
"Not in a million years did I think this would happen. And to fight so hard and be so close to getting downstate is tough. We felt great (when up 6) but then it started slipping away.
"Give Loyola credit. They pulled it out at the end."
Senior Michelle Ricolcol (5:14) and junior Anna Schueler hit back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game at 39 with 3:05 left.
Two free throws by senior Lauren Kriz gave the Wilmette Catholic school power the lead for good (41-39) with 2:19 left.
Even in the final minutes, the relentless Wildcats battled to the end and missed winning the game when a 3-point attempt with two seconds left just missed.
"It was a crazy run," said Kellie Kuzmanic (11 points), who was a freshman on Wheeling's Class 4A third-place finisher in 2009. "Just because we were underdogs (No. 14 seed) no one expected us to really come out this strong in the tournament.
"Playing with my sister (freshman Deanna, who had a game-high 18 points all in the first three quarters) was such a great experience. I loved this team so much."
It was a team that lost 14 of its first 15 games.
But the postseason was all about winning and the Wildcats still have as many state tourney triumphs as the Final Four teams because they started out in a play-in game.
"It's tough to be positive right now," Malsom said. "But when you look at everything we've done, you can't frown upon it."
The Wildcats had their fans smiling right from the start of their second supersectional in four years.
That's when junior sharpshooter Jessi Zuba (6 points) started the game with her first of 2 3-pointers and freshman Deanna Kuzmanic ended the first period with a 3-pointer for an 8-6 lead.
Loyola enjoyed the biggest lead of the first half when a 3-pointer by Maggie Nick made it 23-18 but Wheeling got to within 23-22 at half with back-to-back drives by the freshman Kuzmanic.
"She's (Deanna Kuzmanic) a great player and Wheeling is a great team," said Schueler, who led the Loyola with 10 points. "We were lucky to come out with win."
The game was tied at 33-33 when Deanna drove and then pulled up for 8-footer to give Wheeling a 35-33 lead after three quarters.
"That's a great freshman," said Loyola coach Jeremy Schoenecker said of Deanna Kuzmanic, who missed most of the first half of the season with an ankle injury. "We kept trying to force her to her left. We knew she would be tough to stop."
Freshman Hanna Drobrowski, who had a big bucket in the third quarter, found Kellie Kuzmanic for a layup to push the lead to 37-35 and moments later Kellie grabbed a rebound for an easy layup that made it 39-33 with 5:55 left in the game.
"Obviously, our heads were low then but one thing about this team is that we will never give up," Schueler said. "We really didn't think much about (the deficit) We knew there was still time left."
"We told the girls don't panic," said Schoenecker, whose team was the No. 4 seed in the New Trier sectional and finished second to Trinity in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference tournament. "We will still get good shots."
Sure enough, Ricolcol and Schueler hit the big 3-pointers to get Loyola back into contention.
Kellie Kuzmanic's 12-foot turnaround jumper would be the Wildcats' last points of the season, making the score 42-41 with 35 seconds left.
A free throw by Ricolcol made it 43-41 with 16.4 seconds.
Trying to seal the verdict, Loyola missed its next 5 free throws before Wheeling's final 3-point attempt.
"It was neck-and-neck all the way," said Wildcats second-year coach Julissa Hernandez. "What better can you ask for a supersectional?
"They came out strong defensively. And we were strong defensively. Whoever was going to do better offensively was going to get the W."
Loyola's offense was better by only 2 points.
"We fought all the way," Hernandez said. "Right now it hurts. But give it a couple of days or a week, and these girls will realize everything they did and what everyone saw from them in this postseason. This just shows what we are capable of doing in the future."
The future will be without two key seniors in Malsom and Kellie Kuzmanic.
"We'll definitely miss them on and off the court," Hernandez said. "They had a heck of a season. When it comes to their leadership, we'll have big shoes to fill."
And in this case, some golden slippers.
Wheeling High School
Conference: Mid-Suburban East
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